Cattle meets conservation to help green arid Arcoona Lakes

Cattle meets conservation to help green arid Arcoona Lakes

Two people with remarkable vision are joining forces to rehabilitate a massive but overgrazed area in the remote pastoral country of South Australia.

One sits sipping coffee, looking east from the former cattle station homestead at Roxby Downs to a nearby creek as he waits for the sun to rise. It’s a special moment for Kokatha Enterprises chairman Aaron Thomas.

The other is wildlife scientist Dr Katherine Tuft, who, only a few kilometres away, is gently husbanding previously eradicated tiny native animals back to their traditional lands, part of her work for not-for-profit conservation research group Arid Recovery.

At the homestead, treetops and dense scrub fill Thomas’ view, where only seven years ago there was white sand and a dry riverbed.

The outlook is a happy reminder to the Aboriginal land manager that change is afoot on his ancestral country in South Australia’s arid north.

Reduced grazing pressures, recent good rains, and a 2014 Native Title settlement are, Thomas hopes, helping return his country to lost glory.

Map showing kokatha section of south australia
A map showing the extent of the Kokatha NT settlement. Graphic: Kokatha Aboriginal Corporation.

“We can call it arid, barren, an unforgiving landscape, but that’s not how it always was,” the 47-year-old Kokatha man tells Cosmos. (Kokatha is pronounced ‘Kook-ah-dah’ in the local Aboriginal language.)

Thomas is speaking of country about 500km north of the state capital, Adelaide, and where efforts to restore the arid landscape are underway. But what’s surprising is he wants to also return the land to cattle grazing.

“From stories of older folks in my families, I know it was a bountiful, productive and lush landscape; there are stories from old timers, from before grazing, of vast tracts of scrub that were virtually impenetrable.

“The vision is to restore the country as close as possible to what it was pre-pastoralism and grazing. It’s only in the past couple of generations that that has been lost.”

Nonetheless, he says, on many parts of the property you can still “run a motorbike from one end to the other pretty much in top gear”.

Indigenous know-how is needed, Thomas says, but so too is science.

Ducks in water
Ducks in the desert. Image: Arid Recovery

“The two big things I lose sleep about are what are the activities we can undertake commercially that have positive social outcomes for us, and, at the same time, return and restore those ecosystems to the properties we administer.

“The challenges we’re meeting and problems we’re trying to solve, we want to make sure [solutions] are underpinned by scientific accountability that is recorded and quantified so that we can have measured outcomes.

“How do you do sustainable and responsible cattle management? How do you quickly restore and regenerate pastures to retain water, attract bird life and insects, the larger herbivores, so that you’re bringing some balance back?”

Coming home

Born in Port Augusta in 1976, Thomas now lives mostly in Adelaide after 18 years in IT service delivery for health and other sciences at University of Adelaide. 

But his roots are on Kokatha Country.

The historic 2014 native title settlement restored 14 Kokatha families and 1,800 common law landholders to an area of South Australia slightly bigger than England at 14 million hectares (32 million acres), all now administered by Kokatha Aboriginal Corporation (KAC).

The region boasts Arcoona Lakes, a complex of ephemeral wetlands providing temporary shelter and breeding sites for birdlife. The system comprises 11 waterbodies sized between 50–600ha—some are freshwater habitats, others brackish or saline—as well as other smaller swamps between Roxby Downs and Woomera on the Arcoona Tableland.

The lakes’ significance was first documented when the complex filled under good rains in 1989 and up to 150,000 waterbirds of 56 species were supported over the following 5 years. Rains fell again with similar, though slightly diminished effect in January 2007.

Birds flying through desert lakes
Waterbirds, including ducks, have returned to Arcoona Lakes. Image: Arid Recovery

The land claim also embraces mining exclusions managed by mining company BHP at Olympic Dam; Oz Mineral’s copper-gold project at Carrapateena; Australian Defence restricted areas at Woomera, and three pastoral leases totalling some 500,000ha (1.2 million acres): Roxby Downs, Purple Downs, and Andamooka stations, now leased back to Kokatha.

The lands connect Kokatha to diverse pasts, some ancient, like important archaeological campsites left from past gatherings of Kokatha people on the shores of Lake Mary near the mining town of Roxby Downs. Other connections are more recent.

“Back in the day, a lot of Kokatha people lived and worked on those [pastoral] stations,” says

Thomas, “doing anything from handling sheep, to cattle, fencing, or working in the homesteads as governesses and cooks.

“One of my aunts was a governess at Andamooka Homestead, while her family was out on fencing camps. All the boys and girls did the same work to make ends meet; it was a difficult life and people died young.”

Now when Thomas takes older Kokatha to visit one of the homesteads, they tell him they “never thought they would one day sit on the porch”.

“Because the only reason they were ever allowed into the house was to tend to the station owners and their families. Yet here we are now. We can sit on the porch. It’s all ours.”

But there is much to be done, Thomas says, to restore the land and kickstart new cattle operations.

Helpful neighbours

Supportive partner to the Kokatha effort is research group Arid Recovery, under CEO Dr Katherine Tuft. With a background in conservation ecology and a PhD on brush-tailed rock-wallabies, Tuft spent six years researching declining mammals in northern Australia.

In September, Tuft and Thomas signed a memorandum of understanding between their respective organisations, a plan to combine traditional knowledge with modern conservation research. Its aims are officially listed as knowledge, education and good stewardship (of Country).

The vision is to restore the country as close as possible to what it was pre-pastoralism and grazing.

Aaron Thomas

“The goal between my organization and the Kokatha community is to do more on the country around here and to do it together,” says Tuft. “For my organisation that’s a science research-based conversation … but our goal is also to bring together that science with the community and a cultural interest in country, and to look after it.”

Under the MOU, the two groups aim to manage feral animals and overgrazing; monitor and protect Arcoona Lakes and their important birdlife; and encourage the return of species now missing from much of Kokatha Country, like the bilby (Ninu or Wirlda) and the quoll (Idnya).

Arid Recovery has worked alongside Kokatha on wildlife conservation projects since 2013, but its roots go back to 1997.

“It’s the brainchild of principal scientist Katherine Moseby and her husband John Reed,” says Tuft, “started around the time calicivirus was knocking the rabbits down in the mid-’90s and developed into removing cats and foxes as well.”

“The main cause [of extinctions] has been cats and foxes, which quickly hunted native mammals,” she says. “Feral rabbits have added extra pressure, as they competed with native mammals and degraded habitats.”

Close to Roxby Downs Arid Recovery manages a 123km2 reserve, fenced to exclude predators and protect the introduced mammals. Here Tuft leads a staff of six helped by volunteers from Roxby Downs community to conduct rewilding research.

To remove predators from the exclosure, rangers use traps, lures, shooting and baiting, with a remote trap-checking system alerting if a trap goes off to reduce response times and improve the welfare of the feral animals trapped. An average of 60 cats and foxes are removed this way from the exclosure each year.

Since European colonisation, 34 native mammal species have become extinct in Australia, largely the result of alien predation, a loss that recent research shows causes changes to vegetation in outback Australia.

Redressing such losses is part of how Kokatha and AR are working together. From September, a Kokatha Indigenous Ranger Program will encourage rangers to study at TAFE and train on-the-job with scientists.

“Already community members are helping with animal surveys in the reserve,” says Thomas. “Elders help with tracking, vegetation that’s appropriate, plants to use, what animal behaviours are like.”

But both Thomas and Tuft want to be more nuanced about training. Tuft explains.

“Some of the expertise we have will be brought to bear and there will be on-the-job training as we work together. And—all aspirational of course—they’re keen to look at options for tertiary qualifications for people as well.”

Restoring bounce

Kokatha and Arid Recovery hope their work will increase the “resilience” of the landscape, its ability to bounce back under stressors such as drought, and yield a measure of ‘natural’ insurance against global warming.

“Katherine’s aim is to get her reserve as close as possible to what it would have been pre-settlement,” says Thomas, “and one of our primary objectives is conservation … something that we—Kokatha—want to see as well on the pastoral leases we control.”

Here again, science can help, he says.

“We may be able to commercialise that IP, to be applicable across other landscapes or [other grazing areas] around Australia.”

And commercial considerations are vital to Kokotha’s viability on the lands, hence KAC considering a return to cattle.

“We’ve been agisting cattle for our neighbour on a five-year plan that ends in 2025; with the price of cattle at the moment, we’re going to jump in, especially since we’ve just had two fantastic winters.

“The magic number is 600, but we’ll see what the community and pasture would support; do an independent appraisal for stocking rates.”

Can conservation and cattle go hand in hand on arid country?

Small mammal held in person's hands
In August 2022, twelve kowaris (Dasyuroides byrnei) were released at the Arid Recovery Reserve in a world first. Image: Arid Recovery.

Arid Recovery released nine greater bilbies into the predator-free reserve in 2000. The nine grew to a population of 800–1500, along with several other species. And Tuft reports another new species recently rewilded to the reserve: the kowari (Dasyuroides byrnie – a carnivorous desert rodent). The kowari is sixth to be rehomed there along with the greater bilby, greater stick nest rat, burrowing bettong, Shark Bay bandicoot and western quoll.

If rewilding is any indication, and the relationship between tradition and science remains strong, perhaps anything is possible?

Or maybe a slightly different question is appropriate.

“We want to know how Indigenous knowledge can complement scientific rigour,” says Thomas, “how the two can complement each other.”

Worthwhile questions indeed.

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